A UN maritime tribunal has ruled that Russia must “immediately” release 24 Ukrainian sailors and three Ukrainian naval vessels captured by Russia in November.
The Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea delivered its ruling on May 25 on the case Ukraine brought against Russia.
Russia seized the ships in November near the Kerch Strait bridge, which connects the Russian mainland to the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
Relations between Russia and Ukraine have been tense since Moscow annexed Crimea in March 2014 and began providing military, political, and economic support to separatist formations waging a war against Kyiv in parts of eastern Ukraine.
Tribunal President Jin-Hyun Paik said that judges decided Russia must "immediately" return the three ships to Ukraine's custody and release the sailors and allow them to return to Ukraine.
Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said that Russia could send a positive signal by adhering to the ruling.
"Russia's fulfillment of the order...could be a first signal from the side of the Russian leadership of real readiness to stop the conflict with Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said on Facebook.
“In this way, Russia could take a step toward unblocking talks and resolving in a civilized way problems that it created," he added.
Reacting to the ruling, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the UN Convention on Law of the Sea could not be applied to what it termed the “dispute about the Kerch Strait incident,” in a statement cited by Interfax.
Nineteen of the 20 judges voted in favor of the ruling, with only the Russian voting against.
The tribunal's decisions are legally binding, but it has no power to enforce them. The tribunal called for both Russia and Ukraine to report back on their compliance by June 25.
Correspondents say the ruling is unlikely to definitively end the question of allowing Ukrainian ships full access to the Sea of Azov, which Russia has been restricting since a bridge across the Kerch Strait was completed.
But Ukraine is hoping the victory will provide legal weight in its fight against Russia, which has boycotted the proceedings, saying the court has no jurisdiction.
Ukraine has denied Russia's charge that the Ukrainian ships had entered Russian territorial waters illegally.
The European Union, NATO, and other international bodies have called on Moscow to release the ships and the detained sailors.